EVEN THE DARK TIMES BRING ENLIGHTENMENT

I try not to bother God too often, but I do sometimes ask Him for grace, to lend me some when I need to display it. I admit to asking now.

The last three weeks have been the darkest yet most enlightening of my professional life. The dark part is obvious. I made a careless mistake in a column. It wasn’t malicious. It didn’t harm the subjects. But it was factually incorrect in four paragraphs. I assumed something would happen that didn’t. That was wrong.

I apologized to my bosses. We were going to run a correction. Then we decided to go further. I apologized on the front page of the sports section, something unprecedented, but indicative that we took it seriously.

And then, as Dick Enberg says, “Oh my!”

A volcano erupted. An explosion that mixed the criticism I deserved with a lava flow of anger, hate, self-righteousness and people who once called themselves friends preferring to act as my judge and jury.

I went from sorry, to shocked, to saddened, to silent. I didn’t want to lash out. I felt terrible for the mistake, terrible that my newspaper had to take heat, terrible that my editors were besieged. Time passed. Lumps were taken. And people moved on. I have been slow to return to this column because a lot has been said and done, and a lot seems changed. The boundless joy I always felt for this newspaper business has been socked in the stomach.

But I have tried, in recent years, to see a lesson in everything, because when the smoke clears, there usually is one. It turns out there were quite a few here.

A time for reflection

If I ever wanted to learn what it was like to be an athlete or coach with people screaming for your head, I’ve learned. It’s no fun. I hope always to remember that feeling before rushing after someone in print.

If I ever needed a humbling reminder to slow down, something I’ve struggled with for years, here was that lesson again. That column was filed in a hurry on a day when I wrote another column right after it. Too fast. Too dangerous.

And if I ever needed to learn the stinging irony of this business, I’ve had my chance. In the race to report on my journalistic error, you could barely count the mistakes and falsehoods that were committed. From a TV station that called me a Pulitzer Prize winner (I’m not) to a major sports magazine that chastised my column on two players who weren’t at the Final Four, then got it wrong by saying I wasn’t at the Final Four.

A time for forgiveness

So it might be easy to go from sorry to screaming. Hate people back. But to what end? Having asked for forgiveness myself, I can do no less than give it.

So I will not swipe at those who swiped at me. It was my mistake. I’ll own up to it. Besides, in 20 years of doing this column, I have never written for those people.

I write for you.

I write for readers. I find stories I think interest you, opine on subjects I think you might want to think about. It is the joy of this space. And in my absence, you have returned some of that joy with letters and e-mails and phone calls. The incredible readers of this paper, from little old ladies in the Upper Peninsula to a group of workers at American Axle in Detroit to a wheelchair hockey player from Lansing who sent a beautiful note of encouragement, then apologized for it being a few days late because he “had some medical issues.”

He was apologizing to me?

I’m telling you, when you are down, life sends you the most amazing people.

In time, this will all find its place. In time, goodness returns. But there is one more important lesson here.

I know there are kids who read this newspaper. I know there are kids who read my column. Some teachers even use it in schools.

Well, you kids need to know that what I did was a mistake. It was careless, and you should learn from it. Be better than I was on that day. Know that you can’t assume something is going to happen, even a sunrise, because the one time you write it as if it happened, the sun might not rise. Nobody’s perfect. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. And if you mess up, say you’re sorry, as I am saying again here.

And know this: Just as you can’t assume the future, you also can’t assume human nature. It won’t always be kind. It won’t always be fair or friendly. But if you want to grow into good, balanced journalists, the thing you should most remember is the thing that was most forgotten these last few weeks: Perspective.

Protect it. Cherish it. And you – and I – with God’s grace, will be fine.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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